Allan Powell: Reality is hard to find

April 27, 2012|By ALLAN POWELL

Richard Dawkins must surely be one of the most prolific writers of modern times. While his forte is evolutionary biology, he comfortably ventures into other fields of science. His newest publication, “The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True,” is another gem for one’s library. It is, without a doubt, one of the best illustrated science books to be written. Dawkins deals in a masterful way with a very slippery word, “reality.” Dawkins, at the same time, might surprise those who are certain they know “reality.”

The pattern followed throughout this book is to tell the mythological origins of each topic and then to show what scientists have found using the tools and methods of science. This approach makes it possible to bring insight into the meaning of “reality” by an intimate acquaintance with the slow, methodical and analytical style used by scientists to incrementally scrape away the imperfect view to reach the actual state of affairs. Truth (i.e., reality) in science is accepted current consensus within the scientific community. This might not be the final opinion but it is the best available based on the existing evidence.

There are many who are critical of this slow, tentative and non-authoritarian approach to the uncovering of reality — but there is a perfectly common-sense reason why scientists are so deliberative about claims to possessing “reality.” In order to find true correspondence between a scientist’s claims to true “reality,” they would have to have an already certified “reality” in hand with which to compare their assumed “reality.” This, of course, is not possible. Therefore, all scientists can ever reach is an approximation of the actual state of affairs. This might indeed be very close and serve well until improved a bit more.

We can see this fruitful scientific approach in two examples I have selected from the body of cases presented by Dawkins. The questions ‘what are things made of?’ and ‘what is a rainbow?’ will serve our purpose. It is generally accepted that several ancient civilizations such as Greece, China and India agreed that everything was made from four elements: air, fire, earth and water. We now have established the existence of more than 100 elements. One perceptive Greek thinker, Democritus, proposed the idea that you could cut a piece of matter in half again and again until it was no longer able to be cut. This final a+tomes (not + cut) was the origin of our word atom.

The story of the discovery of the atom, which eventuated in atomic fission and other applications of atomic theory, reveals the wonder and beauty of how scientists, using a reliable method can incrementally extract “reality” (or a near approximation) from the depths of mystery. When the method of observation, experimentation and verification are applied to the open market of ideas, earlier myths, legends and folklore give way to a clearer and clearer picture of “reality.” What began in ancient Greece as a hunch has been clarified by rigorous study.

The other example, that of the discovery of the composition of a rainbow, begins more than 5,000 years ago in what is now Iraq. A myth within what is known as the Epic of Gilgamesh tells the story about how Utnapashtim was asked by the angry gods to tear down his house and use the parts to build a huge boat. It was to hold “the seed of all living creatures.” There was to be a great flood after a heavy rain lasting six days and nights. All living creatures not safely within the boat would be drowned.

Utnapashtim, it is recorded, released a dove, a swallow and, finally, a raven before dry land was sighted. The god Ishtar then created the first rainbow to serve as a reminder of the promise that he would never again inflict the world with such a horrible flood.

More than 1,000 years later, a parallel version of an all-encompassing flood appeared under the direction of Noah. Here, again, a rainbow was provided as a sign that Noah’s descendants would never again suffer such a fate.

It was Sir Isaac Newton who discovered that a rainbow is really created by directing a beam of light through a prism. The visible portion of light — when refracted by a prism — is called a spectrum, the orderly arrangement of the colors of the rainbow. When we see a rainbow in the sky, it is a result of light rays being “bent” by millions of small “prisms” in the form of raindrops. We can create our own rainbow in the backyard by spraying water from a garden hose. An understanding of the laws of nature paints a more wonderful and amazing picture of “reality” than the most powerful myths of antiquity.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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